The Netherlands stops supporting Syrian rebels, ahead of Idlib offensive

The Netherlands has stopped funding the Syrian opposition in the civil war against president Assad, foreign minister Stef Blok and trade minister Sigrid Kaag have told MPs in a briefing. The chance that rebel forces will be able to win the civil war is, the ministers say, now 'extremely limited'. Dutch support for the rebels has 'not had the desired effects', the ministers said. The Netherlands had set aside €70m to fund the opposition. In addition to funding 'moderate' rebels, the Netherland had also put money into their police forces and to the White Helmets programme, the civilian rescue service. Funding for the first two programmes has stopped immediately while the White Helmet support will end in December. The Netherlands will, however, continue to support Syrian people 'which will be extremely necessary' in the coming period, ministers said. Some three million people live in Idlib, which is the last rebel stronghold and where a major offensive by Assad supporters Russia is said to be about to take place. In their briefing ministers are pessimistic about the current situation in Syria, saying that a military victory by Assad's forces is 'imminent' and that the 'inherent instability' means the prospects for lasting peace are gloomy. However, the Netherlands will continue to strive for a political solution and to support Syria's neighbouring countries which have also been hit by the conflict, the letter said. Read the report on the three projects (English)  More >

'Budget will make NL stronger, safer'

Finance minister Wopke Hoekstra told MPs on Tuesday afternoon that government policy in the coming years is aimed at making the country 'stronger, safer and more prosperous' The minister was outlining the government's strategy, following the official opening of the parliamentary year by king Willem-Alexander. 'Our current wealth is no guarantee for prosperity in the future,' Hoekstra told MPs. This is why the government is investing in society, and boosting spending power for citizens, the finance minister said. Macro-economic The economic substance of the government's plans leaked out earlier. Hoekstra forecasts an average rise in spending power of 1.5%, that the economy will grow 2.6% and that the structural budget deficit will reach 0.4% of GDP, just above the 0.5% limit set down in eurozone regulations. Despite the rosy picture, the minister warned his audience about stormy waters ahead in the shape of trade wars and Brexit which, he said, 'threatens our exports, our jobs and our wallets'. Prime minister Speaking after Hoekstra's presentation, prime minister Mark Rutte confirmed that the government will press ahead with the controversial plans to scrap the dividend tax, despite the fact only 11% of the population support it. 'The worry is that a couple of the biggest Dutch companies may leave and we have to prevent that,' Rutte said. If those companies do leave, the prime minister said, 'jobs, innovation and the stock exchange' would all be affected.' Vandaag presenteer ik een begroting die Nederland sterker, veiliger en welvarender maakt. Die ons voorbereidt op de toekomst. Die ons voorbereidt op het verwachte - en op het onverwachte. Door te investeren in onderwijs, infrastructuur, veiligheid en defensie. #Prinsjesdag2018 — Wopke Hoekstra (@WBHoekstra) September 18, 2018 Parliament will debate the government's plans on Wednesday and Friday. will publish a full list of the main points of the budget on Wednesday morning.  More >

Good news budget? Most don't believe it

The third Mark Rutte-led Dutch government will publish its first budget on Tuesday, after the outgoing coalition brought out a holding budget last year. Much of the economic forecast has already been leaked and most of the substance will have been included in last year's coalition agreement. Nevertheless, the budget presentation is an opportunity for the government to put its own stamp clearly on policy for 2019 and beyond. Despite leaked assurances that nearly everyone will have more to spend next year, over three-quarters of the population simply don't believe it, according to a new poll by current affairs programme EenVandaag. The drive to boost spending power is one of the government's key themes but, the survey shows, just 17% of those polled believe that their own spending power will go up in 2019. 'The increase in value added tax (btw), rising rents, rising energy bills... no pay rise can keep pace with that,' one respondent told EenVandaag. In particular people on low incomes are concerned - just 6% believe the government's assurances of having more disposable cash. King The Prinsjesdag rituals – including the king’s speech to open the new parliamentary year – are enshrined in the Dutch constitution and will take place as they always do. That means king Willem-Alexander and queen Maxima will travel to the parliamentary complex in the heart of the The Hague in a horse-drawn coach. There the king will address the members of the upper and lower houses of parliament, plus the diplomatic corps, and outline the government’s plans for the coming year in the grand setting of the Knights Hall. Later, finance minister Wopke Hoekstra will brief parliament on the country's economic prospects. MPs will start their debate on the government's plans on Wednesday and continue on Friday, rather than Thursday because the prime minister has to attend an EU summit. In the weeks thereafter, each individual ministry budget will be scrutinised and debated. What has been leaked: 95% of the population will have an average of 1.5% more to spend People on social security benefits will see a 0.9% increase, the average rise is 1.5% The economy will grow by 2.5% in 2019 Unemployment will continue to fall The state debt will dip under 50% of GDP Brexit could cost the Netherlands 1% to 2% of GDP The budget surplus will hit €10bn, but the structural deficit will drop to 0.4% More money will be spend on education, defence, security and the infrastructure The government forecasts a monthly rise of 10% in health insurance premiums The 15% tax on dividends will be scrapped, costing an estimated €1.9bn Corporation tax will be lowered from 25% to 22.24%, rather than 21% to pay for the dividend tax cut Announced earlier and implemented in 2019 The number of tax bands will be reduced to two - almost 37% up to €68,507 and 49.5% for all income above that. Home owners who have almost or entirely paid off their mortgage will again have to pay tax on the value of their property - more details are expected today The 30% ruling for international workers will be cut from eight to five years. We will find out today if there will be a transition period after all. The low rate of value-added tax (btw) which applies to food and entertainment will go up from 6% to 9% The rules for having a company bike will be simplified. Users will have to add 7% of the value of their bike to their income for tax purposes What we won't hear: Broadcaster NOS states that nothing will be said about efforts to reform the pension system, which the government is keen to carry out but which are bogged down in talks between unions and employers. Nor will there be any comment on the cost of the recent climate agreement because many of the measures needed to phase out the use of natural gas in the Netherlands are still being worked out in talks involving various interest groups. 'Both the climate and pension are very complicated issues,' NOS correspondent Xander van der Wulp said. 'The cabinet does not want to impose its will but hopes the talks will result in something.'  More >

Salt mining under scrutiny

Salt mining in the Netherlands is causing subsidence, earthquakes which damage homes and leaks of diesel oil and brine which may threaten groundwater, experts have told MPs at a hearing, the NRC reports. The main areas for salt mining are in Twente and Friesland where companies AkzoNobel, NedMag and Frisia are active. The three together mined some seven million tonnes of salt in 2017. Protests by the local population and local authorities have put salt mining on the political agenda with the most recent hearing on September 12. The problems caused by salt mining are similar to those caused by gas extraction, including the lack of trust in the government and a sluggish compensation policy from companies, the paper says. Two of the companies are already under stricter scrutiny. Mining watchdog SodM has banned future salt mining by NedMag in Veendam where soil subsidence has been much worse than expected. AkzoNobel’s activities have led to various leaks which are currently investigated by the public prosecutor, the paper said. Profit over safety At last Wednesday’s hearing soil expert Adriaan Houtenbos told MPs that salt mining caused four caverns to collapse, seven leaks of diesel or brine and four salt mining related earthquakes in the last ten years. Houtenbos, a former employee of gas production company NAM, said that ‘as with gas extraction, incidents are occurring that seemed impossible. There has been a lot of supposition and there is little know-how and companies are focused more on financial gain than safety,’ the paper quotes him as saying. A complicating factor is that the salt mining is often done in conjunction with gas extraction, putting the onus on the locals to determine which of the two is responsible for the damage to their homes. This is ‘a difficult task, to put it mildly’, the NRC writes. Not so bad Mining company representatives at the hearing said the soil subsidence risks could be limited by proper management of groundwater levels and that the damage to housing was not ‘so bad’. There was, however, support for an independent body to look at the claims. According to Bart Overbeek of environmental organisation Vereniging Behoud Twekkelo the question is whether companies will pay up for damage done in the long term. He also said the government should take a critical look at its own role. ‘How can a government have an independent view of salt mining when they have a stake in it. The state is using the empty salt caverns to store strategic oil reserves. You can imagine the conspiracy theories that are doing the rounds in our region,’ the NRC quotes him as saying.  More >